The 3rd Nitrate Picture Show was recently held in Rochester, New York at the George Eastman Museum, from May 5-7, 2017. Film archivists, preservationists, historians and enthusiasts from around the world attended and viewed rare nitrate film, projected on the big screen at the Dryden Theatre.
Nitrate film, the primary commercial film stock in use until 1951-1952, is no longer allowed to be screened in movie theaters, due to it’s flammability. Only four theaters in America currently have the equipment, authorization and expertise to safely project nitrate films, and none of them hold as extensive a nitrate-based film festival as the Dryden:
Brief history of nitrocellulose in film
Nitrate film owes its development to the creation of nitrocellulose, developed by French scientists in the early 19th century. This material was appreciated primarily because it was so flammable, which lead to its use in the manufacture of explosives and propellants, including a material known as Guncotton, known to blow up during the manufacturing process if not careful.
Lots of experimenting was going on to stabilize nitrocellulose for other purposes. Historians credit various scientists and inventors for transforming this material into a flexible plastic that would become known as celluloid, including English chemist Alexander Parkes and American inventor John Wesley Hyatt. Once refined, celluloid was being used everywhere – household goods, children’s dolls and other toys, clothing, even billiard balls. And, yes, there were reports of billiard balls exploding if they were hit too hard!
From nitrocellulose to nitrate film
In 1851, with the development of the collodion wet plate process, we see the first and most enduring use of nitrate as a medium for early photography. This was nitrate film, but in its liquid form, which was referred to as collodion. It was the primary chemical in “wet-plate” photography, a complex process that used plates made of heavy glass or other stiff materials as film.
It’s around 1888 that we begin to see those heavy glass plates replaced with sheets of lightweight and flexible celluloid, the true beginnings of nitrate film. George Eastman adapted its use to his early cameras and film projects in 1889. More years of trial and error eventually lead to large rolls of 35mm motion-picture film created from the nitrate-based celluloid sheets.
There was constant experimenting going on this era. Various sizes and shapes of film were constantly hitting the market. And during this time, some fires did occur due to the high volatility of the nitrate-based film stocks. At the end of the 19th century, regulations began emerging for projectionists and theater owners about how to safely project film for public viewing. Fireproof projection rooms with wall coverings made of asbestos and heavy, vault-like doors to the projection booth were a requirement — needless to say, film projectionists were doing hazardous duty back then!
From nitrate film to acetate film
It’s also around this time that manufacturers begin to recognize and make film for the home market. Yet it was nitrate film, highly flammable, in the hands of amateurs. This worried the film manufacturers who knew the consequences of a home fire caused by their film would be dire. This concern lead to the development of Acetate film, otherwise referred to as “Safety” film stocks, which replaced nitrate film. By 1923, 16mm film shows up, chosen by Kodak so people couldn’t run the flammable nitrate stocks. All 16mm film manufactured is Acetate “Safety” stock.
The major commercial studios continued to shoot their movies on nitrate film because it was considered a superior medium for holding the emulsion. By the early 1950’s, Acetate had been refined and all the major movie studios had ended their use of nitrate film stock.
Nitrate film archives from around the world
At this year’s festival at the Dryden, archives from around the world, including Japan, Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden loaned prints from their collections. And many of these archives sent the custodians of these films to Rochester as well, partly because they had never seen their nitrate prints projected before—even though many of these prints had been in their collections for decades. That’s how rare it is to actually see a nitrate-based film projected on the big screen these days.
I’ve worked with nitrate stocks on a daily basis for many years, including films that date back to the Silent Film era, but on this trip to Rochester, I handled a piece of film that was truly one-of-a-kind, a nineteenth-century treasure that has somehow survived to this day.
Rare 58mm wide nitrate film
Hard to believe a 120-year old piece of film could still be so viable and vital even now, but it is. A Gaumont Film Company shot scenes of Paris street life, circa 1898, in the rare “Chronophotographe” format—wider than the industry-standard 35mm, it was actually 58mm.
The unique 58mm size is a relic from the early days when 35mm was still not the big dog on the block and experimentation was everywhere, in size, format, materials, etc. This 58mm film is a reminder that the widescreen Cinemascope epics of the 1950’s and the 70mm films and IMAX films that screen at certain theaters today are just part of the movie industry’s long-running desire to get richer, larger images onscreen. Cinemascope used 35mm film, but “squeezed” the image using a special lens. Then, when it was projected, it was “unsqueezed” to create a wide image. Other formats, like VISTAVISION or IMAX, sometimes laid the film out horizontally, instead of vertically, to get a wider image.
58mm was not a popular or long-lasting format, but another stop along the way during a period of rapid experimentation and lack of standards. There have been other widescreen formats that existed for a brief time, including Magnascope, which used a large magnifying lens on the projector to widen the image and Cinerama, an ambitious format that used a unique camera that filmed onto three pieces of 35mm film simultaneously and then, three separate 35mm projectors working in sync would project the massive image onto a large, curved screen.
The 58mm film in these pictures can now only be viewed by hand or through a magnifying lens, as few 58mm film projectors were ever made, and none are available today.
This particular cinematic work does not seem to be based on a play or a script of any sort; it simply shows street life in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Most of what remains are a few shots of children playing and street traffic. It’s unclear how much this format was used, but it was not very popular and its existence was brief.
One would have seen it, perhaps, in a French theater where one might have gone to see a magic show or other live stage performance. Perhaps it was used as part of a special effect – a stage actor might have been in front of the film as it was projected, interacting with it in some way. Or it was integrated into a magic show, something Melies, the great early French filmmaker would have done. His shows were filled with illusions—some live, some filmed, and some a combination.
This is a unique look at the constantly evolving art and craft of cinema that is worth preserving as long as possible for future audiences and historians. Many thanks to the folks at the George Eastman Museum for making this rare piece of history accessible.